Sometimes life requires you to make a split-second decision, to act fast or not act at all. I’ve always been the type of person who prefers to risk doing the wrong thing than wonder what would have happened if only I’d acted. Very rarely has that philosophy steered me wrong, but it might have today, when it led me to a cemetery.
I went there because I learned this morning, quite by accident, that an old friend’s mother had passed away three weeks earlier. “Dave” mentioned it at the end of an email responding to my question about a social event. From this you might infer that Dave and I are not that close, and you’re not wrong. But we used to be.
He and I dated from 2004-2008 on what some would call an on-again/off-again basis, but that term doesn’t really do it justice. The relationship, voltage-wise, existed in a state of perpetual brownout until a sudden and inexplicable surge of electricity overloaded the system, exploded the transformer, and sent the whole thing up in flames. It left me scorched for a while.
But my ruinous marriage yielded at least one unexpected benefit: It made my and Dave’s relationship inferno look like a campfire. Thanks to it and the passage of time, I no longer held anything that resembled hard feelings. I decided to let Dave know that, via email, when an opportunity presented itself this summer. He was glad to hear from me and, if he had sustained any burns from our relationship meltdown years earlier, they seemed to have healed. Since then, we’ve exchanged friendly emails sporadically, played phone tag once, and then planned tentatively to catch up at a holiday party our mutual friend is hosting tomorrow. That plan went off the rails with this morning’s email about his mom.
After reading the sad news, I searched for and found a death notice, according to which the burial service was today at 12:30 at a nearby location. It appeared to be a public event.
Watching several of my friends deal with losing a parent has taught me how important it is just to show up when you can. And I realized I could, but only if I left right away. The fact that I hadn’t seen Dave since the relationship transformer blew up in 2008 gave me pause, but my gut beat that hesitation right into submission. It was not just telling me to go, it was screaming. I ran the idea past my and Dave’s mutual friend. She thought I should go, too, having lost her mom six months ago.
I set off for the cemetery with the intention of standing on the fringe of the assembled crowd.
That plan might have worked had the assembled crowd numbered more than four. I knew in an instant that I shouldn’t be there, and I was considering taking cover behind a huge oak tree when Dave spotted me. I had no choice but to go forward. I walked up, gave him a hug, offered my condolences, and then turned to go.
“It’s okay, you can stay,” he said.
I froze, unable to remember what etiquette tips Miss Manners had imparted about funeral crashing. I stayed, fearing that I would cause an even greater distraction if I left. I stood in the otherwise empty second row while a family member read a few Bible verses. Then began the cruelly mechanical process of lowering the casket into the ground. A bulldozer pulled up and brought forward the dirt that would ultimately cover the coffin. I wasn’t prepared for that job to be done right in front of us, by what looked like a piece of construction equipment, or for the funeral director to hand my friend a shovel that he and the other attendees would use to scoop dirt from the full mouth of the bulldozer and onto the casket.
As I stood in the background, I considered handing the bulldozer guy $20 to open up a second hole in the ground, because I could have used one to swallow me up. I’d been aiming for “quiet presence” but, my aim being what it is, had overshot that and landed on “bizarre distraction” instead. In a situation where I expected people to come out of the woodwork, I was the lone termite to emerge from the beam.
Now that I’ve recovered (somewhat) from my mortification, I’m not sorry I went. The “what-ifs” would have haunted me for months. But the next time my gut wants me to drive it to a cemetery, I think I’ll get it an Uber.